Children are in crisis, but no-one mentions family breakdown

This week there have been alarming reports of the state of children’s health in the UK. The Academy of Medical Sciences published a new report on the worsening health of under-fives, highlighting that the UK is 30th out of 49 rich countries for infant mortality. It also found that: 

  • One in five children falls short of the expected level of development aged two 
  • One in five is overweight or obese by the age of five 
  • One in four is affected by tooth decay by five 
  • There is a rising demand for child mental services for children under five. 

The report author, Prof Helen Minnis said, “we are betraying our children” and co-author Prof Sir Andrew Pollard said the “appalling decline” in the health of British children was “creating a bleak outlook for their future”, adding that “it is time for big thinking and clear strategy by government to protect the health and life chances of our children and transform the future of our nation.” 

Another report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that emergency mental health referrals for children have risen by more than half in three years 

There were 32,521 referrals in 2022/23 up from 21, 242 in 2019/20 – a 53% rise. The College warned that children could develop long-term conditions, affecting their education, social development and health without being able to access prompt care from mental health professionals. 

Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Child and Adolescent Faculty, called for more investment in NHS children’s health services, saying “It’s unacceptable that so many children and young people are reaching crisis point before they are able to access care. We cannot allow this to become the new norm.” 

It’s clear that our children are in crisis and need help, but the recommendations by the authors of both these reports only focus on solutions to the treat the symptoms of the problem, NOT the root causes. 

Family breakdown is the single biggest predictor of internalised and externalised problems for boys and girls 

Another report recently published, showed that marriage is at an all-time low in England with fewer than half of couples currently married, the first time this has happened since records began. More than half of children do not live with both their natural parents, mostly due to the separation of parents who never married. 

Whilst marriage may not be a silver bullet to solve all societal problems, evidence shows that it stacks the odds in favour of stable families (or, putting it the opposite way round, the absence of marriage stacks the odds against stable families).  

Recent research from the Marriage Foundation found that nearly all parents (90%) who stay together until their children reach 15 are married, whereas cohabiting parents make up 19% of all couples with dependent children, but account for half of all family breakdown. Parents who are married before they have a child are far more likely to stay together. 

Children are now more likely to have a smartphone than a father at home. Children need father figures, especially boys, yet 1 in 3 children do not live with fathers. 

1 in 5 single mothers are now using credit to pay for household essentials and a similar proportion have started using food banks, with more than three quarters struggling with debt according to the charity Gingerbread. 

All evidence shows that poverty is a huge driver in predicting poor health outcomes for children, but many researchers seem reluctant to draw the conclusion that growing up without their father contributes to financial hardship and has an extremely negative impact on children’s wellbeing.  

The figures from the National Fatherhood Initiative shows the stark reality of children growing up without fathers. Children who do not have their father involved in their lives are: 

  • At four times greater risk of poverty 
  • More likely to have behavioural problems 
  • Twice the risk of infant mortality 
  • More likely to go to prison 
  • More likely to commit crime 
  • Seven times more likely to become pregnant as a teenager 
  • More likely to face abuse and neglect 
  • More likely to abuse drugs and alcohol 
  • Twice as likely to suffer obesity 
  • Twice as likely to drop out of school  

All the evidence shows that children’s outcomes are so much better when they are raised by their married biological mother and father within a loving and stable family, so why has traditional marriage between one man and one woman become so controversial in the UK? 

Consent in a moral vacuum 

Marriage is barely mentioned in relationships, health and sex education lessons in schools, with the focus in many PHSE lessons being on LGBTQ+ relationships and casual sex. Children under 16 are encouraged to have sex when they want, with whomever they want, as long as both partners consent (or worse, more than one partner consents, as even polyamory is now on the curriculum). The overarching message of modern-day sex education in the UK is that pleasure is the main goal of sex – the age of consent and long-term relationships are skimmed over, and marriage doesn’t even get a look in. 

Every year the UK Office for National Statistics, (ONS) charts the decline of marriage in Britain. In 2021, for the first-time figures showed that more babies were born to unmarried couples than those who were married, as cohabitation became the norm.  

There is also a growing marriage gap according to figures from the ONS: 87% of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24% of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married and are more likely to stay together, whereas the poor don’t.  

Data from the Family Resources Survey (FRS) reveals that, among mothers with children under five, 87% of those in higher income groups are married compared to just 24% of those in lower income groups.  

This should alarm policymakers 

As policymakers struggle to find ways to improve outcomes for poor children in the UK, why are they not joining the dots? Education schemes for improving diets and dental hygiene or providing more health visitors for under-fives are simply treating the symptoms, not the cause of the problem – family breakdown. 

Contrary to what children are being taught in primary schools, it does matter what families look like. Children need both their parents, and they need them to stay together. Quickie no-fault divorce does not help couples to work through their issues and face their problems together ‘for better, for worse’ for the sake of family stability.  

Instead of looking at bringing in more legal rights for cohabiting couples, policymakers need to rescue marriage and start creating financial incentives to encourage more couples to marry.  

The first step is recognising there’s a problem. If politicians really want to improve the bleak future that awaits many of our young children, they need to stop treating marriage as a political taboo. And instead of giving every impression of being positively hostile towards it, they should instead start speaking up for the most stable type of family we have. 


Lucy Marsh is the PR and Communications Officer at FET. You can contact her at